In the ‘Year of 5G,’ Many Americans Still Struggle to Get Online

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This spring the U.S. government was planning to focus on its strategy for rolling out fifth-generation wireless networks, bringingfaster internet connections to power movie downloads, telemedicine, self-driving cars, and more. Officials want to see 5G,now available in only some cities, ramped up quickly and to keep Chinese companies such as Huawei Technologies Co. from dominating the critical networking technology. Then thenew coronavirus hit, sending workers and schoolchildren home to try to do their jobs and continue their education on laptops.

Suddenly 5G took a back seat to a much more pressing problem: Tens of millions of Americans don’t have access to reliable internet connectivity, or can’t afford it, and will have trouble communicating, working, and attending classes online without it.

Ajit Pai, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission,asked internet providers on March 13 to commit to a 60-day grace period during which they wouldn’t charge late fees or cut off service to people and small businesses who don’t pay their bills. He also asked them to open up Wi-Fi hotspots, expanding their reach to nonsubscribers. But after that period ends, the number of people without internet could become even larger.

Advocates for expanded regulatory authority over broadband now see more need for it than ever. “The broadband companies used to attack me for utility-style regulation,” says former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler. “We’re talking about critical services.”

Pai made closing the digital divide a priority when President Trump appointed him in 2017. But internet access in the U.S. has slowed over his tenure, though there’s disagreement about the extent to which the country is falling short. TheFCC reported in May that 21.3 million people live in places without access to high-quality broadband. Microsoft Corp. conducted a study based on the speeds of the connections people were using to access its services and determined thatabout 163 million Americans weren’t using high-speed internet.

Price is the biggest reason people who don’t have broadband at home go without, according to a2019 study by the Pew Research Center. Smartphones are a big factor, too, because many people now use only those. But some researchers found that students who rely on smartphones for homework often fall behind, and applications such as video chat are bandwidth hogs.

Pai has been sharply critical of FCC efforts to increase connectivity by subsidizing service for low-income people,highlighting reports of fraud and abuse in the Lifeline program, which gives people poor enough to qualify for food stamps a $9.25-a-month subsidy toward broadband or wireless internet service.

In the short term, internet providers are subsidizing customers.Comcast Corp. has increased the speed on its Internet Essentials program for low-income customers and is offering 60 days for free.Charter Communications Inc.’s Spectrum is offering free service for students. A handful of broadband and wireless companies have lifted the caps they normally place on data usage to account for the changing ways people will likely use the service in the future.

Pai, a former lawyer at Verizon Communications Inc., has tried to minimize the government’s involvement in the broadband market. He’s argued in court that the commission has far less legal authority to regulate broadband than his predecessors claimed. As a result, the chairman “doesn’t have anything more than arm-twisting ability right now,” says Gigi Sohn, a senior staffer at the FCC during the Obama years. The FCC didn’t respond to a request for comment. In aMarch 24 blog post, Pai said he’s “committed to using every legal means at the FCC’s disposal to help Americans deal with the coronavirus pandemic.”

Since his March 13 request to broadband providers, as the spread of Covid-19 forced more shutdowns, Pai has focused on helping wireless providers access additional spectrum to handle increased demand, while also loosening some rules around programs such as E-Rate that provide subsidized service to schools and libraries. The FCC has also gotten about 500 internet providers to pledge not to cut off service.

It’s not possible to build new infrastructure—5G or otherwise—fast enough to deal with the acute need for connectivity, but many people are scrambling to do what they can. Andrew Moore, chief information officer of the Boulder Valley School District in Colorado, has helped about 100 students sign up for Comcast’s low-cost broadband service and has purchased dozens of mobile Wi-Fi hotspots. “I’d love to see all the telco providers through this period turn off the cost for the hotspots and let the data flow,” he says. “We are in extraordinary times right now, and that requires extraordinary leadership from our corporations. Get us through May or June.”

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